“Oh would you stop yelling?” Discord’s shout filled the bubble. “Honestly! Flying is one of the safest forms of travel, you know.”
Under most circumstances, Spike might have just ignored that sort of order. Every muscle in his body was tensed, remembering all too well his last trip by magic sphere. More specifically the sudden, painful stop at the end. Two things, however, inspired obedience from the unicorn.
Firstly, as much as he didn’t want to admit it, Discord did seem to be a better pilot. Despite the supposed drain on his magical power, the miniature draconequus seemed to control the magical bubble like it was a part of his own body. Soaring high above Equestria, dipping easily around the strange, thorny clouds that dotted the sky, narrowly avoiding the overgrown Plunder Vines with acrobatics that would have put a Wonderbolt to shame.
Which led to the second reason Spike clamped his mouth shut: The fact that his stomach had finally caught up to him from Manehattan. He could feel his face changing to match his mane as Discord pulled a particularly loopy maneuver. Everything outside the bubble was just a blur of sky, ground, clouds, vines, more sky, ground again…
“Spike?” Something soft, feathery, and (more importantly) familiar fell over his back. “Hey, are you feeling alright?”
Spike swallowed hard before looking to the pony next to him. The worried, cross-eyed gaze of a gray pegasus pony waited there. A sight that was certainly better than the green and black blur the ground below had become.
Even if she’s not the Ditzy I know.
Spike flinched as the thought put another weird clench to his stomach.
“Uh… I think I’ll…” he grunted, putting one hoof over his mouth.
Ditzy was giving him a reassuring smile, even as one of her eyes drifted strangely to the side. The eye, the way she patted his back with her wing, even the smile, all just like he remembered them. If Spike hadn’t known better he’d almost swear he hadn’t left home.
Of course, it just took a quick look around to remind him that wasn’t true. Part of his mind wanted to recognize how lucky he probably was travelling with five mares. The other, more significant part, was just glad to be looking at anything other than the speeding landscape.
That part was also wondering how anypony could be standing upright at that moment. Rainbow Dash, however, was doing just that. In fact, she was near the front of their bubble-ship, wings spread almost like she was pretending to glide. Pinkie Pie was up near the front too, looking like she was doing her best not to enjoy the ride. Not an easy task judging from her occasional gasp and tremble of her tail.
At the very least Octavia made Spike feel less alone in his queasiness. The musician had leaned herself against the wall of their transport, her eyes resolutely glued to her cello. On the surface she almost looked like she was taking the ride well. It didn’t take much effort to notice her face was a shade paler. Or the way her hooves visibly tightened around the instrument with every dip or sudden bank Discord put them through.
In truth, Orange Sherbet was the one the drew most of his attention. Just looking at her, she didn’t look too bad off. Especially given her fall, how long she’d been laid-up back in Manehattan, how long it’d been since she (or any of them, really) had a chance to really freshen up. Just the fact she was still fit enough to be travelling with them was impressive enough. Almost shockingly like another Element of Generosity Spike could think of.
Maybe it’s got something to do with that element?
Whatever the secret behind the high-society mare’s apparently indestructibility, it did not seem to extend to her stomach. Sherbet didn’t look like she was feeling much better than he did. Her eyes were squeezed shut, mouth drawn in a tight line.
As one hoof moved over her stomach, Spike could feel his own worries suddenly fly out the window.
“Hey, how about you Missus Sherbet?” Spike cleared his throat, forcing himself to sit up a bit straighter. “After everything back in Manehattan-”
“Hang on, everypony!”
Spike’s own stomach gave a lurch as Discord’s voice called out. One loop-de-loop later and the unicorn was back to covering his own muzzle. Suddenly the amount of stale bread he’d eaten was catching up to him. Thankfully, Sherbet managed to open her eyes, and actually gave him a slight smile.
“Oh I’ll be fine, Spike. Just not used to travelling quite so fast.” The Manehattanite rubbed her stomach again, wincing as she did so. “Also I… well I-”
This time it wasn’t Discord’s voice that cut off the conversation. Spike’s eyes went wide as Orange Sherbet held her stomach again, a blush coming to her cheeks. Ditzy seemed to be stifling a giggle, her wing covering her mouth, while Octavia’s eyes finally peeled from her instrument.
“Was that your stomach?” she asked, raising one eyebrow. “No offense meant but… are you really that hungry right now?”
“... Well, I didn’t have much of a chance to eat before we left.” As Sherbet answered, Spike couldn’t help but notice the irritated glance she gave Discord.
“Oh my dear Orange, you should be thanking me!” Discord retorted as hovered overhead. “It’s not like your current diet was doing much for you.”
The inside of the bubble fell silent. Spike knew that he wasn’t the only one staring at Discord. However he was pretty sure he was the only one that noticed a lock of hair twang loose from Sherbet’s hairdo. The stallion took a few nervous steps back, eager to have as much distance between himself and the draconequus as possible.
“Aww, don’t listen to that shrimp,” somepony else spoke up.
Spike never thought he’d breathe a sigh of relief at the sound of Rainbow Dash. There he was, however, doing just that as the last two of their group shuffled into the conversation.
“Yeah! Discord’s just being a grumpy-head ‘cause we’re not paying attention to him.” Pinkie bounced a bit on the floor bubble as she spoke, before giving Discord a disapproving look of her own. “Besides, you’re not the only one getting hungry.”
“Oh I’m sorry! I should have conjured up the First-Class bubble,” Discord answered with a sneer. “Really, if you knew how much magic I needed to lug the six of you around-”
“Whatever,” Rainbow Dash cut in with a roll of her eyes. “We’ll just grab a bite once we get to… uh… to…”
There wasn’t any need to look around. Spike could already feel the other four mares were just as confused as Dash suddenly was. One eyebrow raised as he looked up at Discord, voicing the question that they were all thinking.
“Hey Discord, where are we going?” he asked.
There was something about the way the chaos spirit’s shoulders shook that Spike found oddly foreboding. Like he was barely holding back a bout of evil laughter.
“Why not take a look for yourselves?” Discord gestured with one paw as the bubble arched over another cluster of vines. “We should be just getting in sight of our destination.”
Better judgement usually wouldn’t let anypony take their eyes off Discord. At least, Spike assumed so. His curiosity, however, already had the better of him. He joined the other five as they turned to see what waited ahead.
The second he did, his jaw dropped.
“Is… is that Canterlot?” Octavia gasped out.
Spike rubbed his eyes and checked again.
Octavia’s shock was easy to understand. For a second, Spike was almost relieved. The city ahead didn’t look nearly as ravaged as Manehattan had. Even from a distance, he could still pick out all the familiar towers and spires of the castle city. It all almost looked as white and pristine as the Canterlot from his own homeworld.
Or it would, if he could ignore the massive tangle of thorny vines twisting their way up the mountainside. Spike couldn’t even gasp in shock with how dry his mouth was. All he could do was stare at the trail of Plunder Vines that had snaked their way up to the base of the city. All of them wreathed around the base of a massive sphere of magenta light that surrounded Canterlot.
… Wait a second.
Spike finally managed to shut his mouth as he took in the sight again.
The entirety of Canterlot, enclosed in a huge bubble of light.
That was as far as he got before their own bubble began to pick up speed. With a startled yelp, Spike rolled onto his back. Most of the other kidnapped elements quickly joined him, only Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie managing to keep their balance.
“What are you doing?!” Dash’s voice could barely be heard over the whine of wind speeding past them. “I like going fast, but do you not see the huge forcefield?!”
“A little faith, Dashy my dear!” Discord retorted. “I know exactly what I’m doing!”
Spike grunted as he managed to disentangle himself from the ponypile he’d been flung into. Spitting out a mouthful of gray feathers, he had just enough time to see how close the shield around Canterlot was getting. His eyes went wide, along with his mouth, as his heart froze in terror.
Rainbow Dash didn’t have time to cover her ears against the sound of breaking glass. In fact, she barely had time to notice the sound.
In an instant, gravity seemed to shift sideways. The pegasus mare twisted her body as she was flung forward. Her wings flapped frantically as she tried to reorient herself. Thankfully, her athleticism paid off in spades. She was flying straight almost as soon as she hit open air.
Which left her ample time to notice the other five, non-flying blurs that had come plummeting from the bubble with her.
“Hang on, guys!” Dash shouted, quickly pitching her body down.
It was almost too familiar as she went to into a steep dive. Five ponies plummeting helplessly to the ground. Even Ditzy Doo seemed too stunned from her earlier tumble to use her wings. Dash bit down on her lip as her eyes darted from one pony to another, her mind whirring as it tried to find someway to catch them all.
Then something fluttered in the corner of her vision. Her head snapped up, and for once a sense of relief hit her.
Without wasting a breath on words, she tucked her wings in. Gravity and aerodynamics did their job, sending her screaming past the others. In an instant, her wings snapped open again, sending her banking hard to the side. Her mouth opened wide for a brief second-
Then snapped shut around the edge of a large banner. With a triumphant grunt, she flipped in midair, soaring back the other way. She could feel the tension in the banner as she stretched it, closing her eyes in a silent prayer that it would go far enough.
She breathed a sigh of relief as five solid whumphs of ponies hitting cloth reached her. The banner nearly vibrated out of her grip, but she set her jaw tight, slowly easing it in as each pony landed. With a few final flaps, Rainbow Dash slowly moved in, watching as the heavy payload in the center of the cloth lowered until finally, she let go.
Rather unceremoniously, five ponies tumbled from the banner and rolled the last foot or so to the ground. Dash allowed herself a smile as she landed next to them.
“Everypony alright?” she asked, watching as the others tottered back to their hooves.
“By certain definitions,” Octavia answered, clutching her cello close.
“That. Was. AWESOME!”
Nopony else had a chance to say anything before a bundle of pink curls sprang into view. Most ponies might have jumped back at the sight. Rainbow Dash just chuckled at the all-too-familiar sight of Pinkie Pie bouncing excitedly in place. It took a second to realize the earth mare was already half-way through retelling what had just happened.
“--Then when you swooped down and caught everypony and… We gotta try that again but faster next time and--wait!” Pinkie suddenly stopped jumping and began glancing in every direction she could. “Where’s Discord?”
Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow as she looked around herself. Octavia and Pinkie were easy to spot. Spike had his head stuck in some bushes and was making rather… unpleasant gagging sounds as Ditzy and Orange Sherbet stayed close to him. But (somewhat worryingly) there was no sign of the miniature draconequus anywhere she looked.
“Hey yeah, where’d that half-pint--” Rainbow Dash was cut off by a strained grunt from above.
Dash’s head snapped up at the sound of the voice. Discord was indeed still overhead. The chaos deity was visibly sweating as he shoved against a wall of glittering magic. It took a second for Rainbow Dash to realize it was the same shield the rest of them had smashed through. A shield which was letting out a worrying creak as Discord continued pushing against it.
“Just… just hold on a moment, my little ponies!” Discord managed to smile through the visible sweat on his face. “I’ll be right--”
His eyes went wide as the magical bubble suddenly shoved him back a fraction of an inch.
“Oh…” he muttered, prodding it with one claw. “That’s not--”
Dash’s ears fell flat as she winced in pain. The noise would have been comical if it hadn’t been so loud. There wasn’t much she or anypony else could do about that, though. Six pairs of eyes watched as the bubble suddenly bounced back to its rightful shape, sending a small brown speck sailing into the distance.
All six ponies visibly winced as a distant plume of dust rose up.
“Well… so much for our ride,” Spike commented.
“Eh, he’ll be fine,” Rainbow Dash said with a dismissive wave of her hoof. “Besides, this way none of us have to lug him around this time!”
“How can you say that, Dashy?!”
Any relief Dash had felt at not having a repeat of Manehattan immediately fled as a pair of pink hooves grabbed her shoulders and started shaking.
“This is Discord we’re talking about!” Pinkie Pie’s face was blurring in and out of focus with the continued shaking. “And now he’s out there! Unsupervised!”
It took a moment for Rainbow Dash to force Pinkie’s hooves away. It took several more for her to convince herself that she wasn’t going to be sick. The whole time she could only half-listen as the others’ voices continued talking.
“Pinkie, maybe you should calm down,” Orange Sherbet suggested.
“Yeah!” Ditzy Doo chimed in. “Discord said he brought us here to help Equestria-”
“But what about when we aren’t watching him?!” Pinkie’s hooves clattered, indicating she was likely on her hind legs with her forelegs in the air. “Discord’s not just bad! He’s like, the Grandmaster-of-all-things-bad! Who knows what sort of evil he’s getting up to now!”
“Uh, Pinkie?” Rainbow Dash swallowed the last of her nausea as she raised her head. “He’s the size of a rabbit.”
Pinkie just twisted awkwardly, having indeed been up on her hindlegs.
“Tiiiiiny evil....” she intoned, waving her hooves to add to the ‘eerie’ tone in her voice.
… Are we sure Discord didn’t grab my Pinkie Pie?
Surprisingly, as she looked at the others, Rainbow Dash got the distinct feeling some of them were wondering the same thing. It was Orange Sherbet clearing her throat that drew everypony out of their own thoughts.
“I hate to say it but… well, it’s not like we can worry about Discord right now.” The socialite patted down a stray lock of hair before nodding to the others. “We were brought here to look for one of the Elements of Harmony after all.”
A general murmur of consent moved over the group. Dash couldn’t help but notice how Pinkie Pie seemed to deflate slightly at the sound of it. Turning up her best, most confident grin, the cyan pegasus stepped up to Pinkie’s side.
“She’s got a point,” Rainbow Dash agreed, giving Pinkie a pat on the shoulder. “Besides, the sooner we find that Element, the faster we can get back to keeping an eye on Discord.”
Those words seemed to do the trick. Pinkie immediately bounced back, a smile of her own lighting her entire face.
“Right, then let’s get cooking everypony!” A blur of pink immediately sprang away from the group, and in the span of a heartbeat Pinkie Pie was eagerly bouncing next to a sidestreet. “Ooooh, I can’t wait! Who do you think it’s gonna be this time?”
“I think I already know…”
Turning around, Dash found herself looking right at Spike. Despite his stomach issues from earlier, the lone stallion of the group wore a broad smile. One that Dash felt grew considerably more smug under the gaze of the others.
For some reason, it send a twinge of annoyance through the blue pegasus. Fortunately, Orange Sherbet stepped forward before she could say act on it.
“Spike… let’s not be too hasty,” Orange Sherbet cautioned. “Remember back in Manehattan? I thought the same thing--”
“But this time’s different! There’s nopony else it could be!” Spike cut in, pointing straight up as he did so. “Remember what my Element is? Well just take a look at that!”
Rainbow Dash looked up, blowing her forelock from her eyes as she did so. For a moment, she wondered just what she was looking for. There was nothing but the buildings around them and the sky above, with a glittering shell of--
“Oh my gosh.”
Dash’s jaw dropped as the realization hit. The dome of reddish-purple magic covering the entire city seemed to twinkle back in confirmation. Her eyes immediately darted back to Spike; who was still smiling as a spark of his own magic tilted his hat to an odd angle.
“Yeah… yeah!” Rainbow Dash cleared her throat, struggling to curb her enthusiasm. “I mean… yeah. I think I know who he means!”
“That makes one of us, at least.” Octavia didn’t sound anywhere near as excited as she tapped her hoof against the ground. “I’m afraid you have the rest of us at a disadvantage. And I’ve lived most of my life in Canterlot.”
Despite the confused looks most of the others were giving him, Spike’s smile didn’t waver. Rainbow Dash could feel her heart going a mile a minute. Even as excited as she was, part of her wasn’t sure she wanted to be right about this. That didn’t keep her ears from pricking up as Spike turned to the cellist.
“Seriously?” He raised one eyebrow, still while smiling. “If you’re from Canterlot, then you’ve gotta know him!”
Dash’s ears flicked down, then back up again just as quickly. Right before Spike said the same name that had popped into her head.
Octavia’s muzzle repeated the name silently, right before her own eyes bulged in realization. The same sort of recognition hadn’t seemed to catch the others, though. At least judging by the way Ditzy Doo rubbed her chin.
“You mean the Captain of the Royal Guards, right?” Ditzy asked, tilting her head. “I heard he protected Canterlot from Corona when she came back… with a forcefi--Oh!”
Dash had to stifle a laugh at the look on Ditzy’s face. The others all had finally caught on as Spike began bouncing on his hooves.
“That just proves it even more!” Spike insisted, pointing to the shield again. “I lived in Canterlot too, and everypony knows that there’s no unicorn around with more magic than Shining Armor!”
The smile faded a little from Rainbow Dash’s muzzle at those words.
She didn’t frown, but for some reason something about what Spike had said didn’t sit right. It was hard to think of what, however, as Pinkie Pie began springing in circles around him. Dash could hardly focus on anything other than the pink pony and the stallion turning in place to watch her.
“Ooooh! I get it, I get it! Spikey said he’s the Element of Magic for his Equestria.” Pinkie sprang higher and higher with each leap before coming to a sudden halt. “Huh, I’d have thought we’d find the new Element of Magic last!”
“Considering it was Discord that brought us here…” Orange Sherbet trailed off before shaking her head and giving Spike a smile. “I suppose the important thing is we definitely have a strong candidate to start looking for. Well done, Spike!”
Spike’s cheeks flushed a dark purple. Without Pinkie leaping around, however, the uneasy feeling was returning. Dash’s smile was gone now as she raised one eyebrow to Spike. Something was finally coming back to her, mixing with the worry growing in her stomach.
“Hang on a sec. Discord said something else about the ponies we’re looking for,” she recalled. “Something about the Elements here being connected to each of us?”
“That’s a good point,” Octavia spoke up with a nod. “Not that I’m doubting you, Spike, but just how do you know such an important pony?”
Spike just chuckled a bit as he trotted forward. Dash stepped aside, letting the stallion pass as he started for a nearby side street. Right as he reached it, he cast a smile back at the five mares.
“Guess I never got the chance to tell you,” he realized, his voice swelling with pride. “Shining Armor is my big brother!”
Nopony else seemed to notice Rainbow Dash frowning at that.
That’s not right…
Glancing to the others, she once again had the feeling she wasn’t the only one thinking the same thing.
The weather mare didn’t have a chance to speak up. Ditzy Doo’s voice had beat her too it. What was worrying, however, was the slight tremble in it.
“Shining Armor is a unicorn like you then, right?” Ditzy asked, swallowing hard before she continued. “With a white coat and a blue mane?”
“Yeah, that’s him!” Spike’s enthusiastic nod slowed as he gave Ditzy a confused look. “Wait, why are you asking?”
One light-grey hoof lifted, pointing over Spike’s shoulder. Dash raised an eyebrow, following Ditzy’s gesture. Her jaw dropped as she saw what waited.
Spike’s words had made her nervous. This put a sudden, nauseous twist in her stomach.
“I’ve got a feeling meeting him won’t be that easy…” Ditzy finished.
Nopony said anything in response to that. Spike looked just as shocked as Rainbow Dash felt. Understandable as they stared at where Ditzy was pointing. The banner Dash had used hung there. Now that it wasn’t being twisted into an impromptu safety net, Dash could see the picture on it.
A white unicorn stallion, one that she’d seen practically every day of her apprenticeship under Princess Celestia. Only he lacked his usual caring eyes. Instead, he was glaring at the street below. Almost as though he were daring anypony to cause trouble. Somehow tearing her eyes from the sight, Dash could see a solitary word was etched underneath the portrait.
“This… this could be even worse than it looks.” Octavia wasn’t even trying to hide the worry in her voice.
“M-maybe it’s some kind of misunderstanding?”
Spike wasn’t entirely sure who he was trying to convince. In fact, he wasn’t sure about much of anything he was doing as he walked along. All he could picture was the banner, with his brother’s stern glare focused down on him. That alone was enough to send more thoughts than he could process boiling through his mind.
Along with Octavia’s voice.
“We made a rather loud entrance. Splitting up to gather information might be prudent this time.” Her eyes glanced up to Shining Armor’s. “Especially--”
“I mean-there’s just no way…”
He didn’t even particularly care who was listening. He just wanted the mare to be quiet.
Unfortunately his own voice was doing little to drown out hers.
“Shining’s a great guy… no, he’s the best!” Spike’s hoof struck the ground a bit harder than necessary as he protested. “That banner-there’s no way it’s as bad as it looks--”
The unicorn snapped his head up from his hooves to whomever had just spoken. For a moment he was confused to find Orange Sherbet at his side. She seemed nearly as surprised, jumping a bit at his sudden movement. Still, she managed to keep a small smile, albeit an awkward (and somewhat worried-looking) one.
“I… er, uh…” Spike’s cheeks flushed a dark purple as an uncomfortable sense of self-awareness suddenly came to him. “I was saying all that out loud, wasn’t I?”
“Not that I meant to embarrass you, but…” Orange Sherbet answered, nodding her head to the side.
Spike bit his lower lip as he followed the gesture. Much to his chagrin, he and the Manehattanite weren’t the only ponies around. The paved streets they were walking still had a few other small groups of ponies milling about. Most of them had likely been absorbed in whatever errands they were running.
Up until recently, that was. Now practically everypony was looking right at Spike. The young stallion cleared his throat again, much louder this time, as he tried to force a smile back onto his face.
“Heh… uh, don’t mind me?” he suggested, giving a small wave to the other ponies around.
For a second, he could see one small filly return the wave. The child’s hoof was quickly forced back down by the mare next to her, and the two hurried off. Almost immediately, every other pony followed suit, either trotting away or reabsorbing into the conversations they’d been having. Spike simply let out a sigh as they did so.
At least only one of the others saw that…
Spike grimaced slightly at the thought. Still, it did bring a vague sense of relief, along with some feeling of gratitude to Octavia for her plan. A feeling drew a low grumble from Spike as he began to move again.
“Sorry about that,” he muttered, glancing back to Sherbet as he walked. “It’s just…”
His muzzle scrunched up, unsure if it should say what he thought. Orange Sherbet just resumed trotting at his side, obviously doing her best to give the stallion a patient smile.
“You’re a little upset about how this looks.” It wasn’t a question. If Spike hadn’t known better, he’d have guessed the socialite had read his mind.
“Octavia’s wrong about this. She has to be,” Spike insisted as he raised his head again. “I know Shining Armor. Even if everything was going crazy, he wouldn’t. And we haven’t even seen any proof he has!”
Even as those words left his mouth, they rang hollow to Spike. Another look around the street was enough to raise doubts anew.
For as many times as he’d walked through Canterlot, he could never remember the streets seeming so lifeless. There would always be herds of ponies trotting this way and that, browsing the shops, gossiping about nobles at the numerous cafes…
This time, however, the paved road was practically empty. Other than the half-dozen or so they’d just passed, there was no sign of anypony around. Many of the buildings Spike recalled as brightly-colored shops or restaurants had abandoned their awnings, or now sported barred or boarded-up windows. Worst of all, every few yards brought sight of another poster featuring Shining Armor. Everyone of him sporting the same, withering glare.
“I think if anypony would agree with you on that, Spike, it would be me.”
Spike blinked, tearing his eyes from the latest poster. Orange Sherbet was giving the Shining Armor pictured on it a worried look of her own. That combined with her words sent a rock tumbling into the unicorn’s stomach.
“But you thought the same thing about Mosley,” Spike realized as he came to a halt. “And look how that turned out.”
“Indeed.” Orange’s hooves came to a stop, one of them hooking under his chin and forcing his gaze back up. “Just look how that turned out.”
Much to his surprise, Orange Sherbet didn’t seem as worried this time. She was actually smiling as she moved her leg to pat him on the shoulder.
“It’s true, Mosley wasn’t the stallion I remembered at first. But once we’d found Lovestruck and started to fix things, he started to come back to himself,” she said, the smiling never leaving her face. “And if Shining Armor has gotten a little lost, I’m sure he’ll get back to how he was once we’ve helped him. Don’t you think so?”
In spite of himself, Spike could feel a smile on his own muzzle. A little, warm spark finally lit in his chest as he nodded his head.
“Yeah. Yeah, you’re right,” he agreed with a slow sigh. “Sorry, it was all just kind of a shock, I guess.”
“It’s perfectly fine, Spike,” Orange said moving back to his side. “Now then, does any of this still look familiar?”
Slowly, Spike looked around. Looking over the drab buildings, he could imagine just which shops they were supposed to contain. With a confident nod, he pointed toward a crossroad up ahead.
“Yup. The office of the Canterlot Sun should be right up that way.” His determined smile grew as he began to hurry toward it. “If anyplace has a record of what happened since the princesses vanished, it’ll be there!”